For many years, the least costly route into SUV ownership has been the Suzuki Vitara, states Iain Robertson, but, while prices have crept up, so has the technology and the latest S designation proves a point, or few.


At various times in Suzuki’s past, its Vitara and later Grand Vitara models have set an admirable standard for multi-surface transport. While there can hardly have been a single hairdressing salon in the UK that did not boast a custom-wheeled, fat-tyred and stripe-bedecked example parked jauntily at its kerbside, young farmers were early adopters, as were second car families desiring that attractive taste of the great outdoors.


Yet, while Vitara stood for certain values, not the least of which was overall affordability, when its first iteration appeared, in 1988, the SUV market looked somewhat different and was markedly less busy. While every carmaker worth its salt now has a representative SUV in its line-up (many with several in different lines and guises), apart from its exceptionally loyal customer base, Suzuki could too readily be lost in that ultra-competitive environment.


Recognising that the formulation of an Unique Sales Proposition would be problematic in such an arena, something more productive was essential. The latest version of the Vitara has already attracted ‘Evoque’ criticisms, in that its sharper design does possess some visual similarities to the current Land Rover model. Yet, park them side-by-side and the Vitara is actually quite different in its appeal.


A new radiator grille design is one way to effect a visual divorce, even if Vitara now looks more Nissan-like up front. The development of the ‘S’ designation is highly pertinent and, as an indication of the confidence within Suzuki GB, allowing a select bunch of motoring scribes to sample the new model’s competence on the fast, flowing but technically interesting circuit layout at Croft, near Darlington, could have been either a masterstroke, or a fatal error. Fortunately, it was the former, as the new model proved not only capable of winging a most speedy lap time, even capable of almost touching 100mph on the main straight, but also demonstrating that its brakes and dynamic talents were more than up to the task.


The visual distractions include a more aggressive front bumper design and matt black trim detailing on the flanks but the most significant development is beneath the semi-clamshell bonnet, where Suzuki has installed its latest Boosterjet 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine. It is a most apt piece of engineering, because it relies on the latest smaller capacity demanded by environmentalists but which produces the magical ‘100bhp per litre’ figure so beloved by sports car makers.


The 1,373cc unit actually develops 137bhp but, unlike several members of the breed, it musters a sturdy 162lbs ft of torque, its pulling potency, between a lowly 1,500-4,000rpm, which will mean that, if mud-plugging is your chosen pursuit, there is plenty of grunt to charge through the claggiest of conditions, or up the steepest of off-road gradients. Directly injected, its vastly improved breathing potential means that it is efficient enough to return an Official Combined guide fuel figure of 52.3mpg (actual: 44.8mpg on test), while emitting 127g/km CO2.


In performance terms, the Vitara S will sprint from 0-60mph in 9.8 seconds, topping out at a cool 124mph, all of which is not bad, considering that it tips the scales at a modest 1,210kgs (the entry-level 2WD model weighs a mere 1,075kgs, which makes it one of the lightest of all SUVs). What Suzuki does not know, or understand, about lightweight engineering, is scarcely worth knowing. Its 6-speed manual transmission that behaves so impeccably and was surprisingly well-geared on a racing circuit makes way for a brand new 6-speed fully automatic gearbox as an option, which is also another core nod to technological advancement that warrants sampling these new Suzukis.


Featuring a Manual over-ride setting, to justify the paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel cross-spokes, it is one of the most efficient auto-boxes that I have driven for a long time. Boasting identical performance figures to the manual alternative, only the CO2 emissions take an understandable but minor creep upwards to 128g/km. Inevitably, the price tag also takes an upwards hike to £25,500 for this top-of-the-shop model in AllGrip (4WD) trim. However, the ease of driving afforded by this set-up cannot be understated, especially as most Vitaras will spend a lot of their time in and around town centres.


While four-wheel-drive imparts a number of practical benefits, of which safety and progress in adverse conditions are highly useful, as usual, the Vitara possesses the go-anywhere potential of any of its forebears, limited only by its moderate 185mm ground clearance (the approach and departure clearance angles are 18.2 and 28.2 degrees respectively). A selectable dial offers four progress modes: Auto (which maximises the overall efficiency and is the ‘default’ setting), Sport (which enhances the drive characteristics), Snow (for obvious reasons) and Lock (aided by the standard fit limited-slip rear differential, which inhibits wheel slip and transfers torque to the wheels with most grip).


While on-road behaviour is one aspect and I can assure you that the Vitara S is immensely capable, its off-road competence is excellent. Yet, remaining off-road, albeit on a racing circuit, will highlight other elements. As mentioned earlier, the brakes, discs all-round, are exceptional, providing fade-free retardation, even when the car is being pushed almost to extremes of usage. However, Suzuki is renowned for the behaviour of all of its models’ chasses, from the smallest Celerio hatchback upwards. The Vitara is no exception.


Up-rated KYB dampers and springs, over the standard Vitara, are the reason. They not only provide a greater degree of body roll resistance but they also ensure that the tyres are always in contact with terra firma, which maximises grip and overall stability. The ability to chuck around a Vitara with the aplomb of a sports-hatch needs to be experienced to be appreciated but, even after several consecutive laps, the suspension did not overheat and create sloppy handling, which is an important safety criterion. Incidentally, the ‘S’, as with SZ5 versions, also incorporates a Radar Brake Support (RBS) mechanism, which warns the driver of close proximity (adjustable range) and collision potential with vehicles ahead. Should a crash be unavoidable, or should the various warnings be ignored, the car will also apply the brakes automatically, further reducing resultant damage.


The RBS also works in conjunction with the car’s adaptive cruise control, monitoring the distance from vehicles ahead and applying the brakes accordingly, should closing gaps reduce within the three driver-predetermined parameters.


In ‘S’ trim, very attractive hide and Alcantara seat trim is offset by red stitching and red coloured trim rings around both air vents and the instrument dials. The same red treatment is applied to the projector headlamp surrounds, giving the front end of the Vitara S a sportingly different appearance to the rest of the Vitara range, which features blue trim details. When Suzuki launched the Vitara, it boasted of a world-first panoramic (1,000mm) sunroof that consists of two individually sliding and glazed sections, which provide a superb open air experience and introduce plenty of light to the cabin. It can be shielded by the electrically operated sun-blind.


Conclusion:   Suzuki is one of the most satisfying car brands to work with. A specialist in the compact car scene, its models never cease to surprise and they represent great value for money. The latest Vitara S is a worthy sporting option that delivers strong performance across all expectations and proves wonderfully easy and frugal to live with. Accommodating and practical, it is the king of compact SUVs.